It’s not the first year I spoke from the bima (platform) during High Holy Days, but it was my first time leading a meditation, JuBu style! Happy! I stole it from the JuBu Institute for Jewish Spirituality* . I don’t think they’ll mind.
I led 3 services for older kids, on Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, and people didn’t end up hating me. They didn’t yell anti-Arab insults, or pelt me with hate-mail, as after my earlier experiences on the bima. It all didn’t contribute to my leaving the synagogue eventually. So this was big. And I trace it to China. In a roundabout way…
We talk about the akeda these holidays–the binding of Isaac, the famous/awful Biblical tale of Abraham taking his precious boy to a mountaintop prepared to sacrifice him. Religious violence supreme (at least potentially; he never does it), a topic never more relevant, more potent, more begging to be talked about than that very week, when Islamist fanatics killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and two other young men working there. The temptation, irresistible to many on the Jewish-supremicist end of things, is to say, ‘Well, clearly our God spares Isaac. Our religion values life. We don’t kill innocents.’
My take has long been very different. Let’s look within. Let’s look at our tribe. Today especially, at what our long-prayed-for homeland has become. And how amazing I finally found a rabbi, my rabbi, who explained that there is a way to say this from the bima without making everyone hate you. Step one, be generic.
“Say ‘We know every religious community at times has engaged in inexcusable political violence,’ ” he said. The only reason we don’t do it ourselves these days, perhaps, is that “we’re not deeply religious enough to be seduced by this.” But we still have to watch out. We’re capable of it ourselves, for sure. And we have to recognize we’re capable of it–that, in his words, “hatred and violence is not one-directional. Rosh Hashanah is that saving grace that reminds us, is the necessary cleansing process telling us, not to think that killing is what god wants.”
Step two is, paraphrasing the Pirkei Avot: “It’s not a mitzvah or to say things that won’t be heard.”
It’s just ego to be up there pushing buttons.
We get to riff on the Torah portion, this is expected. I’d wanted to talk about settler violence against Palestinians, now officially “terrorism” to the U.S. State department. Many died in these rampages last year; about 200 were wounded. Just a week before, a roving gang of young Jewish settler terrorists left a boy in critical condition.
Rabbi said no. To be heard, change the victim this time. Start slow. Talk about the recent spate of ultra-Orthodox Jewish attacks on Israeli girls and women–spitting on an 8-year-old girl for not dressing modestly enough. Move the listener closer to introspection, to understanding, instead of getting up their hackles. Instead of moving them (and myself) farther away. Even if it’s not making exactly my precious (ego’s) point.
And then involve everyone in constructive interfaith work. In November, we’re doing a Jummah (Friday prayers)-Shabbat joint week-end I’m working on, with a mosque here.
I think I could hear this because of China. Lecturing in Xinjiang, spending two days with two Muslim women who were forbidden from going to the mosque, whose kids couldn’t learn their language in Chinese schools, yet who decried the violence there, and who are determined to translate key Turkic texts into Chinese, into English, from their base in big Chinese universities, to preserve what’s being lost. Watching a few of my students dip their toes into an indigenous Buddhism hardly seen since their great-grandparents’ generation. There’s no battle line drawn (any more) between faith and atheism. What would be the point?
Where would I get generating more hostility? It doesn’t end up moving anyone.
This week’s tragic destruction of the ancient souk of Aleppo has wrenched me. I took these photos there in 1991.
What is a JewBu?
Jews and Buddhists have been hanging together for a long time. Take this scroll. he My rabbi (in email) tells me this scroll, it’s actually only a photo from a display, (the original was spirited away by tomb raiders in the ’20s, I think to the British Museum) is familiar (though the handwriting isn’t). It relates to Tashlich, the ceremony between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we throw breadcrumbs or pocket lint into moving water to symbolize being rid of our past sins. The priceless scroll is one of thousands discovered in a cache, later taken by European explorers. It’s from Mogao, or Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, a complex of almost 500 often-magnificent Buddhist caves used since 400 AD for meditation and worship, full of sky-high Buddha carvings, in the Gobi desert along the Silk Road near Dunhuang (map below). Holland Carter won a Pulitzer for this story in the Times on Mogao. There were Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Arabic scrolls…and our very own Hebrew.
Wherever you go, there you are.
Dunhuang, the nearest town (25 miles) from the Mogao Caves, is closer to Kirgyzstan than Korea–central Asia, not far from Pakistan and Eastern Mongolia. Around Dunhuang, the huge empty desert and Mingsha Dunes, it’s not that hard to imagine the caravans carrying the silk, the foods, the scrolls of many faiths and philosophies.
China looks different through Jewish eyes. Our antennae pick up these ancient wavelengths and we feel our two people’s world-spanning presence and interaction. And we spend so much time in temples and Buddhist sights, because they’re most often China’s most richly interesting cultural treasures.
The JuBu experience is a path fairly well-trod, by practicing Jewish Buddhist thinkers such as Sylvia Boorstein. Who my rabbi emailed me about yesterday, as did my friend, the great Brooklyn author, journalist, “Sisterhood” blogger, guide to all things modern-Jewish-woman, Debra Nussbaum Cohen. The term JewBu was coined (or, popularized) by the poet Roger Kamanetz in his bestselling 1994 The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, a book I’ve always loved. It narrates the visit of Jewish leaders to Dharamasala, summoned by the Dalai Lama, so they might teach him how the Tibetans can survive culturally and religiously in their diaspora and exile. I had a meditation teacher when I was in high school, who’d just finished a decade at Tasajara, the Zen Buddhist farm retreat in California.
(She was Jewish.) I haven’t thought about that 30-year-old time until I just wrote it but maybe that makes me a JewBu. The ‘American Buddhist’ classics she gave me Miracle of Mindfulness and of course the great Japanese monk Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindwere imprinted into my brain quite young. Perhaps this helps explain our frequent visits to Buddhist hallowed ground in China.
Yesterday I started reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. I hope Kenny might read it as part of his bar mitzvah preparation. It begins with a story, not the rabbi’s own but a young man he knows:
“[The Dalai Lama] greeted me with his warm, loving smile and asked if I was Israeli.
‘Yes,’ I immediately answered.
‘Are you Jewish?’ he continued.
‘Indeed,’ I replied.
He was silent for a couple of minutes and then said: ‘You come from the most ancient wisdom…the source…You do not need to travel all the way here to seek the truth…You should return to your country and learn your religion well. Return here if you feel the need, but only after you have done so….’
At the time I was deeply disappointed and kept thinking: ‘Have I ventured all the way to Bihar to discover that I should learn Torah?’ ”
Of course, we should (learn Torah)–there’s never been any doubt, only a lack of time and commitment. We didn’t need to come to China to realize that. But here, we find ourselves slowly immersed in Buddhism and experience it becoming a filter for our Judaism, as in the other direction we see and feel Buddhism here (Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian) through the lens of our own ancient people. The JewBu (JuBew?) experience is an ad infinitumechoing hall of mirrors.
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